The Foreign Student

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A journalist embarks on a voyage into the unknown.

I started studying French two years ago. I was 36, and it had dawned on me that there was something embarrassing about the fact that I was monolingual. Perhaps this was about class, as I had gone from my working-class Baltimore roots to the literary world of New York. Perhaps it was about New York itself, where in a 30-minute subway ride you can easily hear five different people speaking five different languages. Perhaps it was my wife, who’d fallen in love with Paris and demanded that I visit, sure that I would fall in love, too. Or perhaps it was just me, feeling a little too settled and looking for something radical to shake up the routine. I had no idea how radical the experience would actually be.

The thing about studying a foreign language is that it really is a foreign language, which is to say that it’s a dizzying array of words to be memorized, rules for how those words should be assembled, and customs for when those assembled words should be deployed. And those customs sometimes bend back on themselves—the polite form of a personal pronoun can be both self-deprecating and threatening. You have to recognize the context. This is the reason why I speak of the process of “studying” French and not the impossibility of “learning” it. I am a native English speaker and a writer. A large part of the joy of my vocation comes from understanding that it’s impossible to “learn” the English language, if only because the language refuses to sit still. I acknowledge that the French tend to be more conservative in this regard, but the point still stands due to the sheer size of the language.

What I quickly learned was that saying I am going to “study” French was like saying I am going to sail to China. The language is so vast that one can, all at once, feel both great progress being made and a great distance still to go. Sailing from California to Hawaii is far and difficult to achieve; getting to China is farther—and harder—still.

I faced this dynamic several times this summer while studying French at Middlebury. The College’s 11 Language Schools are the gold standard for those seeking to go beyond their mother tongues.
Middlebury insists that you not speak your native language for the entirety of your stay, communicating solely in the language that you are studying. For me this meant seven weeks of all French; no English.

The effect of this was to turn every single encounter, large or small, into a mental Pilates class. This is true, not simply because of the difficulty of the language, but because of what that difficulty does to the ego. The kind of students attracted to the language tended to be people who were educated and smart. And yet to learn French, most of us were reduced to the mental equivalent of three-year-olds. The result was a constant mental exercise, not simply in recalling the language, but embracing the fact that whatever we might say would almost certainly be wrong. The onslaught was forceful and unremitting—the most basic requests became an exercise in one’s capacity to endure humiliation.

And I think this was Middlebury’s greatest reward, and also the greatest reward in studying another language. Many of us were from worlds where we were constantly complimented on our intelligence. But acquiring a foreign language—at least as an adult—requires you to part with all of those compliments and the assumptions you make about yourself. That is the place where true learning can occur, in that uncomfortable spot where your “smartness” cannot save you. I came to Middlebury to continue to study French. But what quickly became clear was that I was, in fact, studying how to study.

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